A lot of modern horror films are so similar that they often seem to be part of the same predictable story, and they create a lot of noise and thunder that signifies very little. So it’s always a bonus when a quiet, finely crafted little horror film comes along and offers something different.
Absentia comes across as a melange of indie Mumblecore aesthetics and chilling urban horror – a strange match, one might think, but it really works. The film maintains a slow, deliberate pace and carefully builds a cumulative sense of dread rather than settling for cheap scares and jump tactics. This works in its favour, as it gives the characters time to establish themselves in a recognisable reality before the more weird elements of the plot kick in.
Pregnant Tricia has suffered for seven years since her husband vanished without a trace in their neighbourhood. With moral support from her wayward junkie sister Callie, she is all set to sign the legal paperwork that will declare her missing spouse “Dead in Absentia”.
Tricia struggles with her conscience, unwilling to submit to the finality of the act. This guilt is manifested in peripheral visions of her husband, silently screaming or pointing an accusatory finger at Tricia. Her burgeoning relationship with the detective in charge of the case adds further complications – he is the father of the unborn child, and offers her a way out of her spiritual torment if only she can cut her ties with the past and accept that her husband is not coming back. Callie begins to suspect that there is more to the disappearance than anyone will admit, and experiences odd, unsettling encounters at a nearby subway tunnel during her daily runs.
Just as Tricia seems ready to admit that her life must move on, her husband appears in the street, weak, malnourished, and suffering from signs of physical abuse. He claims to have escaped from “underneath”, and is terrified of something dragging him back there…
At the heart of the film is the relationship between the two sisters, and the performances from the female leads are excellent. Their relationship is entirely believable, and as the supernatural elements are subtly layered into the plot, their reactions seem honest and realistic. For a film like this one to work, there has to be integrity, and writer/director Mike Flanagan supplies this in spades.
The film contains many scenes of slow, creeping dread, and one or two genuinely unsettling set-pieces. As the story is revealed, the audience is still kept guessing as to whether or not there is a supernatural presence using the subway tunnel to claim its victims, or if the real life angst of a recovering drug addict and a guilt-wracked pregnant woman are causing them to clutch at explanations that are simply not real. This ambiguity is maintained right up until the powerful final scene, which provides a shot of pathos as well as a subtle chill.
The film comes a lot closer to representing on screen the work of horror author Ramsey Campbell than any official adaptation of his work has managed to do. The clinging sense of urban dread coupled with a weird cosmic horror is wrought beautifully on what is clearly a limited budget. Special effects are kept to a bare minimum, the horrors remain off-screen, merely hinted at, and strong performances by everyone involved carry the film along. Even the minor characters – for example the sceptical, hard-nosed partner of the police officer caught up in the relationship with Tricia – are fleshed out. The film’s flaws actually become its strengths – restrictive budgetary constraints, some choppy dialogue, and the naturalistic performances all help to add something interesting to the mix.
When Callie finally decides to confront whatever is lurking in the subway tunnel, the stakes are upped and the former ambiguity is carefully stripped away to reveal a truth that has been chipping away at the fabric of the neighbourhood, dragging it down for decades. The final scene will linger long in the memory, and the ultimate revelation serves as an effective allegory for the urban and social decay that is eating away at the heart of modern existence.
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